“Exploratory in Nature”


Blog, Coastal & Marine, Conservation


I’m in Panamá this week, checking out some research sites and preparing for a month of fieldwork here later this summer. It’s been an uncommonly dry summer here, but—just my luck—since I’ve arrived it’s been pouring, day and night. Stuck inside for now, I have some time to reflect on the last time I was in the tropics, this April, when I enjoyed the unique opportunity of exploring and sampling the mangrove bays of the Galapagos Islands. That cruise allowed me to tread some of the same ground, to see some of the same species in the same environments, as Charles Darwin. He too visited this place near the beginning of his scientific career, and his observations here helped form the basis for the theory of evolution by natural selection. Corny as it may sound, it was hard not to feel a little inspired by the legacy of that insightful naturalist, felt with every dusty footstep in the volcanic earth and seen in the shape of each hungry finch’s beak. I took the opportunity to read Darwin’s published journal from when he visited the Galapagos, which allowed me to share in some of his experiences, from the scientific to the mundane But I also tried to take a page out of Darwin’s book in another way, by bringing the sense of exploration and observation of nature to the work that we had been brought there to do.

The research team discussing the sampling plan on the Queen Mabel's – CDF/GCMP
The research team discussing the sampling plan on the Queen Mabel’s – CDF/GCMP

Our planned research activities comprised four different projects, each aimed at building understanding of the ecosystem services the mangroves of the Galapagos provide. One important service, that of providing nursery habitat for fish, was the focus of most of the researchers. Pelayo Salinas from the Charles Darwin Foundation in the Galapagos led a team devoted to documenting the use of these mangrove lagoons by large animals using an array of stereovideo camera deployments. In addition to allowing one to peer into the comings and goings of this unique underwater world, software trained to analyze the videos produced quantifies and precisely identifies the animals virtually captured in this way. Some of the footage is astonishing: sharks, rays, and curious sea lions make for quite a show. My colleagues in the Gulf of California Marine Program, led by Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, took a different approach to quantifying the habitat function of the mangroves. While snorkeling through the mangrove fringe environment, they performed visual surveys recording the abundance, species, and size of the fish in this vital environment. We were amazed to observe such high concentrations of juvenile fish inhabiting these nurseries. Finally, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I investigated a different ecosystem service of these forests: the sequestration of C in the deposits of mangrove peat.



Juveniles of many species inhabit the mangrove fringe environment. – CDF/GCMP
Juveniles of many species inhabit the mangrove fringe environment. – CDF/GCMP

Charged with the task of adequately sampling the sediments of more than a dozen remote mangrove sites in just a couple of weeks at sea, I had my work cut out for me. With each new forest, I needed to assess quickly how to conduct the most representative sampling possible, given limited accessibility and time. Despite these challenges, I was able to take a great set of samples, and I look forward to when they are fully analyzed and I can estimate the Galapagos’ mangroves stores of C. But the imperative to focus on sampling and the self-imposed pressure to get the most out of this rare scientific opportunity had one draw-back; it made it harder to step back and just to observe. Over the course of the trip, I realized more and more what I was missing by keeping my nose in my notebook recording data.

Once mangrove peat is sampled, Matt spends time sorting, measuring and taking notes for each sample. – CDF/GCMP
Once mangrove peat is sampled, Matt spends time sorting, measuring and taking notes for each sample. – CDF/GCMP


After all, what a unique place we were exploring! The Galapagos Islands, the remote oceanic archipelago, with tropical sun and cold, clear waters, arid lowlands, and mist-shrouded mountaintops, are nature’s laboratory for the development of new forms as wanderers from distant continents settle, take hold, and find innovative and unusual adaptions for survival. Everywhere you look, you see something not to be found anywhere else on Earth: flightless cormorants, marine iguanas, and otherwise familiar cacti in the shape of tall, branching trees. The list of the Galapagos’ fascinating peculiarities goes on and on, so much so that I felt I could spend a hundred lifetimes just getting to know this place. So, what was I doing staring at my GPS and scribbling data in my notebook when I could be taking in the trove of natural history all around us? Alright, we did have a job to do, and we have a responsibility to the funding agencies to produce scientific results from our fieldwork. But, taking a page out of Darwin’s book, I tried more and more as the trip went on to take some time to open my eyes and to wonder. My field notebook gradually transitioned to including more and more drawings, maps, and descriptions amid the data tables as the weeks of our trip went by. Not only was this fun, but it ultimately gave me insight into the very questions I was sent here to answer. In other words, my science probably benefited from not focusing strictly on the scientific plan I had set for myself.

Matts notebook
A scientist’s notebook is filled with notes and drawings of what they see during their work day. – Matt Costa

All of which leads me to ask: what would have happened if Darwin been sent to these islands on a specific, all-consuming mission, instead of having the freedom to pursue broad naturalistic interests? He too only had a few weeks here, but, because his keen eyes were allowed to wander in this natural wonderland, Darwin eventually made one of the most important contributions to modern biology. This trip has inspired me to emulate this approach to science in my own research. I admit, I am biased. For me, exploring and observing has always been a large part of the fun in science, and there is a romantic quality to wandering and observing, being intimately acquainted to a natural space as a whole, rather than pouring all your attention into a reductionist dissection of one, tiny scientific question. More and more today’s research establishment seems to reward the latter approach, making researchers like me wistful for a chance to relive the days of Darwin. In the end, I suppose that both approaches are needed. At the heart of the scientific method is the duality of exploration and examination, hypothesis and test, question and answer. As for my own work, some of my broader observations are already turning out to be almost as scientifically valuable as the data I went to collect. They certainly have supplied new questions, probably much better questions, than the ones my study was designed to answer. I guess I’ll just need to figure out a way to go back again…. Until next time!

Matthew Coasta or Charles Darwin?



Author: Matthew Coasta

PhD student, SIO

Matthew Costa is a Regents Fellow 2013-4 and NSF Graduate Research Fellow 2014-present, and is pursuing a Ph.D. in biological oceanography as part of the Gulf of California Marine Program. He is interested in community ecology, biodiversity and functional diversity, and coastal ecosystem processes and services. His research focuses on carbon storage in sediments of the mangrove forests in the southern Gulf of California. Prior to study at SIO, he completed a B.A. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University studying mangrove species zonation in Bermuda.



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